Console Wars (2015)





Olafsson’s thin fingers danced across the keyboard, the thrill of this ritual evident on his face. From his apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side, he spent the morning’s pre-dawn hours tapping away with the dizzying grace of a concert pianist. There was a certain satisfaction in seeing one’s progress scroll across the screen, as well as the ability to delete unwanted thoughts. Word processors, in a sense, had given man the power to reinterpret the entire human experience.

In addition to being a physicist, Olafsson had taken up a side career as a writer. While rising up the ranks at Sony, he continued to pursue his passion for storytelling, and in 1991 the Icelandic publisher Vaka-Helgafell released his first novel, Fyrirgefning Syndanna (The Forgiveness of the Sins). The 286-page thriller tells the story of Peter Peterson, an expatriate businessman living in Manhattan, who suddenly passes away. In addition to bequeathing his two children a vast fortune and a Park Avenue apartment, Peterson has also left them a grave secret. They discover a sheaf of pages, written weeks before his death, that reveal a crime of passion committed in the throes of unrequited love, a crime that had burdened Peterson for his entire life. The story they unravel spans their father’s boyhood in Iceland, the Nazi occupation of Denmark, and his business career in modern-day Manhattan. Olafsson’s debut novel was well received, drawing comparisons to the work of Ibsen and Dostoevsky, and in December 1991, Fyrirgefning Syndanna was nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize.

Writing and the art of translation were both difficult undertakings, but at least with those endeavors the artist remains in control of the outcome. The same, however, could not be said about the world of business. Commerce was a kitchen filled with so many cooks, each of varying competence and inclination, that rarely did a dish fully satisfy the diner’s hunger. Nowhere had this been more evident than with regard to Sony’s future in videogames. In June 1991, Nintendo had publicly humiliated Sony. Now, six months later, many of Sony’s senior executives were pushing to work out a new deal with Nintendo, one that would allegedly offer a “nongaming role.” In contrast to the title of his book, Olafsson believed that forgiving Nintendo would put Sony’s software aspirations in purgatory and effectively kill any future hardware plans. Though the majority of executives disagreed with Olafsson, he had some strong allies on his side, the most important of which was Sony president Norio Ohga, and it was becoming clear that two distinct forces were growing within Sony: the old guard, who wanted to work with Nintendo or not be a part of this industry at all, and a newer generation who believed that videogames were the future of consumer electronics. The old guard held much of the clout, but the newer generation had Ohga’s support. Eventually these opposing forces would meet head-on and alter Sony’s trajectory.

Olafsson did not know when this showdown would occur and where those ripples would leave Sony. But as he typed through the morning, his mind would occasionally drift to business and a plan that he had been developing. It was a strategy that he believed would both appeal to his forward-thinking brethren at Sony and also appease the dinosaurs who wanted to work with a company of Nintendo’s caliber. It was a risky plan, with lots of moving parts, and the key to making it work hinged on Sega.